Three Billboards, a must see, plus rumpled Denzel strutting his stuff and Pixar’s new one
There are so many new films available this week I can’t even mention them all, let alone review every one.
Read on though. You’ll probably want to see many of these.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri 4 ½ stars
Roman J. Israel, Esq: 2 ½
Coco: 3 ½
Last Flag Flying: 3
The Man Who Invented Christmas: 3
Faces Places: 4
EUFF: Night of a 1000 Hours: 4
EUFF: Boy on the Bridge: 2 ½
THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI: You’re going to be hearing a lot about this one at awards time because it has superb acting, great writing, ferocious drama leavened with laughs and a great understanding of how people really conduct themselves. Also, it hardly ever does what you think it’s going to do. In other words, you haven’t seen this before. It’s the latest from the Irish playwright cum filmmaker Martin McDonagh who made the tough-funny In Bruges a few years ago. Now he drops into a fictional midwestern U.S. town to watch some locals get their dander up.
Frances McDormand takes on Woody Harrelson in the central story. She’s the mother who rents the billboards to shame him, the local police chief, for not solving her daughter’s murder and rape. In a TV news story she really sticks it to him, suggesting he’s been too busy torturing black people. He’s incensed, tries to reason with her, explains all he’s done on the case and asks for sympathy because he’s got cancer. Her response? “They (the billboards) won’t be as effective after you croak.” She’s tough, outraged, fed up. We can’t dislike her. Not Sam Rockwell either, playing a volatile deputy with a racist streak. The script lets us understand him and he rewards us with a surprise turn later on. The film finds the humanity in all these characters and in a few more around them. They’re not types; they’re well-described people and they’re engaging to watch. The film has already won awards at festivals in Venice (best screenplay) and Toronto (People’s Choice). It’s a must-see. (Scotiabank and three suburban theatres) 4 ½ out of 5
ROMAN J. ISRAEL, ESQ: Denzel Washington is superb as usual but this film isn’t. It starts with great promise, seems to offer something appealing because it is unusual and then lets us down by resorting to plot developments that haven’t been fresh for a long time. Maybe I’m expecting too much because the last film by this director, Dan Gilroy, had lots that was unique and new.
Washington plays a civil rights lawyer in Los Angeles who is so eccentric and rumpled in appearance he works mostly in the backroom doing research. He’s got an Angela Davis poster on his wall, a “landmark class action” in his dreams but no social skills. When his partner has a heart attack, he has to handle a case in court and messes up. Then the firm is shut down (by a slick, sharp-dressed uptown lawyer played by Colin Farrell) and Roman is on his own. He tries to get in with a public interest legal team (Carmen Ejogo plays the leader) but is called back by Farrell who, in a not too credible ethical evolution, wants him to run a pro bono division within his firm. Roman evolves too. He succumbs to the lure of the good life and makes a terrible ethical decision. The film is fine exploring these moral issues in the legal profession but the trite story lines keep it from being great. (International Village, Marine Gateway and suburban theatres) 2 ½ out of 5
COCO: Pixar is back doing what it does best. Well, maybe. The animation sparkles and the story moves along apace but their really best work has much more emotional resonance. This one has a very Hollywood story line and feel and that holds it back. I will praise it though for the respect it shows for a traditional Mexican holiday, Day of the Dead, which has deep significance as a day to honor friends and family who have passed on. The film shows the observance accurately, though thankfully not quite completely.
The story is quite ordinary though. Miguel wants to be a musician. His family forbids it because a character many years before abandoned them to go off and play music. Miguel crosses a bridge into the land of the dead hoping to find the mega star Ernesto de la Cruz (voiced by Benjamin Bratt) who he thinks was his great-great-grandfather. He does manage to steal his guitar from his mausoleum and join up with an old associate, a songwriter and trickster voiced by Gael García Bernal. Together they’re off to find their way into an annual show spectacular de la Cruz puts on. They also unravel the real history that links the three. That story is engaging, the music is pleasant and the stereotyping is minimal. The main theme, honoring your ancestors, gets upstaged though. (Dunbar, International Village, Marine Gateway and suburban theatres) 3 ½ out of 5
LAST FLAG FLYING: This is a good film with an odd profile. It’s from a novel by the same man who wrote The Last Detail which was made into a movie back in 1970. It has a similar story, almost exactly the same political attitudes and yet it’s not a sequel. In a way, it merely gives us more of the same.